Monday, September 10, 2012

The Waste of An Education

I come from an extremely well-educated family. Both of my grandmothers went to college (in the 1930s), and nearly all of my aunts, uncles, and cousins have graduate education of some kind. My mother is an emergency room physician, my brother and father have PhDs in economics, and my sisters are both pediatricians. I then went and married a bookish man who is getting his PhD in moral theology.

Even beyond my family, every single one of my closest friends from high school went on for additional education beyond their graduate degree. One has an MBA, one has a PhD in biology, one has her MPH and is a registered dietician, and another has a master's in aeronautical engineering (yeah, she's totally a rocket scientist). It was a sad day for me when my last high school band buddy e-mailed all of us to say that he was headed for a master's in...well, I don't remember what it's in, because I began weeping as soon as I got past the first line of the e-mail.


I have often been tempted to self-loathing over this apparent waste of my education. I graduated from the University of Virginia with a BA in psychology, got married, did the receptionist thing at a veterinary clinic, taught a few flute lessons, and spent a few years working at a law firm. It was all well and good, until I had some babies. And instead of slogging through it to use the fine education I received in a wage-earning, tax-paying kind of way, I quit. I quit to take on the mundane tasks of staying at home, washing everyone's laundry, preparing everyone's meals, frequently washing everyone's dishes, and starting all over again the next day. Not surprisingly, in moments of self-doubt, I simply feel like a high-school drop-out with a college degree.

I am most fortunate that I have not ever heard a word from a member of my family or my friends about this, my apparent waste of an education. In fact, to the contrary: one of my pediatrician sisters once told me that if I wanted to graduate from college and then have children and stay home to raise them, she thought that was a good and noble choice. I still remember that conversation, and I cherish it. But the thought still nags at me. Did I waste it? Did I waste the chance to make a difference with my work? Did I waste the chance to make something of myself by foregoing a career? Did I waste my college education?

Well, I'm going to leave that question hanging, because that's not what this post is really about. I'm not going to get into whether or not it would have been better for me to stay home to raise my kids, "wasting my education," or go to work to "make something of myself." The thought I recently stumbled upon, which will forever be my response to the mean voices in my head, is this. If I stopped having kids now, I would be seriously wasting another kind of education: my education in motherhood.

Think about it. Having a baby is a serious crash course that brings out so many hidden talents that you didn't know were talents, much less that you actually had them within you. You, as a mother, have skills that you didn't even know were possible to acquire before you had kids. Classes you could teach at a university level include:

Clothing Management: How to store clothes for the next size, next season, and next child. Additional lessons in baby poop stain removal and sock matching.

Time Management: How to accomplish anything in the miniscule amount of time you have during nap time after going to the bathroom, grabbing a drink and a bite of food, and sweeping the floor before your baby wakes up. How to wrap up any activity in 5 seconds flat when you hear screaming.

Food Management: How to prepare your own organic baby food and handle the rejection your child will no doubt visit upon your efforts. How to remove stains from ice cube freezer trays.

Relationship Management: How to talk to your spouse about something other than your children. How to turn walking outside with a screaming 6-week old who just won't go to sleep into a bona fide date.

Disaster Management: You should probably just take a First Aid class, buy a kit, and memorize the number for 911, because you're definitely going to need it at some point. Preferably this will be accompanied by moving in with a medically-trained relative (thanks, Mom!).

But, you say, this is silly. Anyone can learn how to do those things. To which I respond: yes, but how many people actually have to? How many people are forced to learn such mundane skills, and to do them all with such speed, that she can actually do them with a baby strapped to her chest at the same time?

Beyond simply learning how to do the mundane things with your hands, there is a mental energy associated with raising children that, as the mother of one six-week-old, I thought might make my head explode. While I was nursing the baby, changing diapers, tip-toeing around our one-bedroom apartment to avoid squeaky floors, and preparing meals, there were thoughts racing around my brain. For example, thoughts about how to squeeze out a little bit of time for myself and my husband this weekend. How to organize my day to accomplish the things I wanted to accomplish. How to balance life at home with life outside it. Which of these tasks staring me in the face actually matters right now? How will I raise this tiny person to know what things are important? How will I keep us all from hating each other at the end of 18 years?

I have three children now, and in some ways, my life is harder than it has ever been (oh, the laundry!).

But in others, I'm finally hitting my stride. Because I know how to clean baby poop out of a onesie, and I know when it matters whether the poop comes out or not. I know when to say "yes" to activities outside the house, and when to say, "maybe we'll be able to handle it a few years from now." I'm learning that teaching children what is important is not like writing on a blank tablet, because children naturally want to be good. And I've been telling myself, "it will get easier some day," for so long now that I've finally started to believe it.

So, to the mother with only one child, and to myself, I say: Self, you are learning valuable lessons. Motherhood doesn't only get easier once you teach your older children to help. It gets easier because it teaches you, too. 

Here's to an education that I couldn't have paid for!

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